I heard a program sometime back on Public Radio that has stuck with me. A defense team was trying to overturn a guilty verdict based on an eyewitness identification. A car cruised up to a house and stopped. The passenger window was lowered, followed by a burst of ammunition coming from the opened window killing the person coming down the walkway. The primary witness of the shooter was a bystander not related to either man. The defense asserted that at the time of day the crime was committed the car would have been backlit by the sun. There was no way a positive identification could have been made. Finally, a reenactment was staged and the judge brought out the very place of the murder, at the same time of year, at same time of day with, fortunately, the same weather conditions. Sure enough, the person sitting in the car mimicking the shooter was visible only as a dark mass. The judge agreed that identification of the shooter was impossible under the circumstances.
The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 at Cardozo School of Law in New York City, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that well over three quarters of convictions overturned through DNA testing are based on eyewitness testimony. Amazing to me, one third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses. In the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, an ex Marine convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year old girl and sentenced to the gas chamber, his conviction was based on the testimony of FIVE eyewitnesses. After nine years in prison, two of them on death row, he was finally freed by his own insistence on using DNA testing.
Tragically, a substantial number of people wrongfully convicted are exonerated only after serving a significant portion of their lives behind bars. These following were incarcerated based primarily on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and exonerated because of DNA testing: Cornelius Dupree, 30 years imprisoned in Texas; Derrick Williams, 18 years in Florida; Johnny Pinchback, 27 years in Texas; Alvin Jardine, 20 years in various prisons on the main land.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how long someone is wrongfully incarcerated, imprisonment of innocent people is a heinous miscarriage of justice. And, the fact that eyewitness testimony has been established as a major contributor to such travesties is deeply unsettling.
Until hearing the aforementioned program, I thought an eyewitness ID was proof positive. And now with my own experience in a situation that was not anywhere near as fear ridden as a murder or rape, I wonder how many people would pay attention to the detail of the perpetrator instead of focusing how to avoid further harm. My priorities were first Tank, and second how not to get bit while trying to save him.
Sometimes the victim is composed enough to look for something identifiable so as to later ID the perpetrator. When an assailant broke into the apartment of then 22-year old Jennifer Thompson and sexually assaulted her, she did exactly that. As she said on 60 Minutes, “I was just trying to pay attention to a detail, so that if I survived…I’d be able to help the police catch him.”
Thompson’s identification, of which she stated she was 100% sure, landed Ronald Cotton in prison with a sentence of life plus 54-years. DNA testing on a semen sample over ten years later not only demonstrated that he was innocent, it categorically proved the culpability of another man.
What keeps bouncing around my mind is the thought of eyewitnesses and the sway their testimony has on juries. Two questions loom.
- How could so many eyewitnesses be wrong?
- Why is eyewitness testimony so powerful despite its record of misidentification?